March 2, 2024

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Home improvement fraud defendant facing life sentence | Local News

Home improvement fraud defendant facing life sentence | Local News

BENNINGTON — The defendant in two recent home improvement fraud cases in Bennington has a long pattern of ripping off both unsuspecting homeowners and close, personal relations for the past 12-plus years, according to a woman who says she experienced the charm, manipulation, and lasting misery of financial hardship from his brief presence in her life.

Amy Campbell knows full well what financial hardship is. She and her teenage son lived with Robert Billings between 2014 and 2015 in Milton. In that fateful year, Campbell claims she lost her apartment and her sense of self-worth, and amassed well over $20,000 in debt at the hands of Billings.

Campbell reached out to share her story in the hopes that by doing so, others will learn from what happened to her and maybe other victims might come forward with their own stories of being deceived by who she considers a charming con-man who she says wreaked havoc on the life of a vulnerable single mom and “doesn’t know how to tell the truth.”

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“I think I just immediately went into the role of fixing things with him, and it just got out of control real fast,” said Campbell, who is just now recovering both financially and emotionally from what happened back in 2015.

Amy Campbell, Amy Marquis at the time, says she met Billings in 2014 after being set up on a date in Milton.

“I was set up with him by one of his high school friends who dated one of my friends,” Campbell explained. “I don’t think I was in a great place at the time. I was very vulnerable from a breakup, and I think he knew that. He can be very charismatic, and honestly, the next thing I knew, he was staying with me. He did not have a vehicle at the time, which should have said something to me – but it didn’t. We wound up living together, unfortunately.”

Campbell said she started sensing something was wrong pretty quickly.

“I think initially, he was working for a private plumber, Tom Stebbins, under Tom’s license out of Chittenden County at the time – in the Fairfax and Milton area,” Campbell said. “I didn’t know at the time that Rob was not licensed. And in Tom Stebbins’s defense, he desperately tried to tell me to stay away from this person, but I did not listen.

“At some point, I don’t know why, I allowed him to use my credit cards occasionally. He wanted to start his own company – Mechanical Solutions – a plumbing business, but he needed a vehicle. I thought at the time that was legitimate. I foolishly took out a loan from my 401K and gave him $3,000 to start that company and purchase a truck. He started using the credit card to purchase various auto parts for a business he said he was starting with friends down in Georgia, but I think they went there just to drink.”

“Between the credit card use – which started adding up quickly – and the loan, I was suddenly in serious debt. About $20,000 worth.”

Campbell said on two occasions during that year, Billings also asked her to deposit checks for a home improvement client into her bank account.

“Those checks were deposits for promised home improvement work from local homeowners,” Campbell said. “He’d go to someone and say, ‘I’ll do work for you,’ and then they would give him a check. He brought me the first check, $1,500.06 and asked if I would deposit it. So, I did that. I found out later that he never followed through.”

Campbell said she confronted Billings numerous times about the quickly accumulating debt, but when confronted, Billings would directly deposit a small amount from his paycheck with the plumbing company into her account to smooth things for a while.

“That was just a band-aid type of thing,” she said.

Then, Campbell said, Billings suddenly moved out a year after they started dating, down to Bennington County, leaving her with all of the debt. She said she asked Billings for the money he took after he left, but he never repaid her.

“I think he realized that I had nothing more financially and that I was broke, so he just left.”

“I never went after him for the money,” she explained. “I thought about it on several occasions. The bottom line is no matter what, I would have never recovered any funds. I felt that you can’t get any money from somebody that doesn’t have any.

“I think that, in truth, I felt responsible for this whole thing. I mean, I repeatedly permitted this person to do this stuff. I really felt at fault, quite frankly. The heart does what the heart does … When you think you can help someone … you do some things that just – when you look back – don’t make any sense.”

Campbell eventually had to move out of the apartment she shared with her son. They ended up renting a room from a friend and putting all of their things in storage. She said she’s been pulling herself out ever since. She is coming forward now, after the latest charges against Billings surfaced, to warn others about people like him and the damage they can do – especially to people who might be vulnerable to his charms.

“Please be careful,” she says. “That’s all I want to say.”

In verifying aspects of Campbell’s story, one of the names on a $1,500 deposit check that Campbell claimed she deposited on behalf of Billings appeared in a records search of Robert Billings in the Vermont court system database.

That person, Tammie Lynn Carter, confirmed the check and the amount. Tammie Carter, then, Tammie Schmitt, of Milton did pursue charges against Billings in 2016 after the check was cashed with none of the work done. Part of the evidence in the case included the $1,500 check that shows it was deposited into Campbell’s account. Carter agreed to go on the record, she says, “To help put a stop to this happening again.”

“In 2016, Rob Billings was hired to do a bathroom for us, put in a new sink and tub, finish plumbing work,” Carter said. “I think it was around $3,000 total for the job. We gave him $1,500, which was supposed to be half the cost of the job plus enough to buy the material. It was cashed. He never came out to do the job. He was like, ‘Oh, I can’t do it. I’m out of town. Then, he just stopped talking to us. He never offered to give us the money back or anything like that.

“It was probably a good six months. Vermont had an attorney who was hired to do these types of crimes as part of a task force for these kinds of crimes. It was a big push to stop this type of home improvement fraud. The attorney from the attorney general’s office actually called me because I think I filed a complaint with the police, which started the process.”

A records search confirms Billings was convicted of the home improvement fraud tied to Schmitt in 2016. A further records review revealed several fraud charges and convictions starting in 2010. That conviction was followed by a 2013 “no contest” plea on false pretenses greater than $900. He was convicted again on a similar count in 2015. In Carter’s case, in 2016, Billings pleaded guilty to two counts of home improvement fraud, resulting in a 0-60-day furlough sentence with credit for time served.

Billings has also been sued in civil court by multiple plaintiffs for work never completed and sums owed and never returned. Part of his 2015 and 2016 plea deal included language that he never enter a contract with or perform home repair or improvements for homeowners.

Billings is currently facing two new cases of home improvement fraud in which he pleaded not guilty in August and then again in October. He currently faces a possible life sentence in these new cases as a habitual offender. In Vermont, an individual who is convicted of three or more felonies is considered a habitual offender and can face a life sentence if convicted a fourth time. There is no trial date set.

“This gentleman took money from me and never did the work,” Carter said. “I’m a savvy person. I’ve never been taken advantage of. My ex-husband was a contractor. Just be really careful. Check out the state websites. It lists everybody that has a license in Vermont, like plumbing, electricians, etc. If they are convicted of any kind of fraud, it will be on there. Check it out before you give anybody money.”

“I want to stop people from doing this, especially against the elderly. I was lucky we had three incomes, so we were able to finish the project until we got the money back. A lot of less fortunate people can get destroyed.”

If you feel you were a victim of home improvement fraud, or if you want to check on any issues with a contractor, please visit the state’s Home Improvement Fraud Registry website at ago.vermont.gov/cap/home-improvement-fraud-registry.